As a native Californian, I first learned about James Marshall finding those famous gold nuggets when I studied our state’s history in fourth grade. Little did I know then that I’d end up living just seven miles from the site of Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, where Marshall made the discovery that launched one of the world’s largest mass migrations.
In the early days of the Gold Rush, things in this untamed land were wild. My town of Placerville, first known as Dry Diggings, earned its most notorious moniker, Old Hangtown, when three men accused of robbery in January 1849 met their fate at the end of a rope following an impromptu trial.
The heyday of the Gold Rush lasted from 1849 to 1852. After that, mining was done primarily by large operations making use ofhydraulic methods, since the easy-to-find gold had played out. The number of businessmen, farmers, and those in other occupations soon exceeded the number of miners, and refinement replaced roughness.
You might think culture was centered around San Francisco and Sacramento City—as it was called then—but that was not the case. While doing research for my stories set in the heart of the Gold Country in the 1870s, I unearthed many interesting facts, some of which I worked into my debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California.
At one point in the story, the hero, mercantile owner Miles Rutledge, tells newly arrived widow Elenora Watkins, “I think you’re in for some surprises. California is no longer the Wild West. Over in Placerville the hotels have running water, the streets are lit with gaslights, and they have a Philharmonic Society.”
Miles relayed only a few facts. Placerville also boasted a brass band, a roller skating rink, and a 1,500-seat theater. And it wasn’t the only town with quality entertainment. Many of those up and down the Mother Lode had theaters, musical groups, skating rinks, etc. as well.
The presence of culture in itself doesn’t tell the whole story. The lack of crime was another factor that proved how quickly the state had been tamed. There were still outlaws and crimes, but as the stagecoach driver reassures Elenora following an unsettling encounter upon her arrival in California, “I hear tell the papers back East are full of stories about outlaws and Injuns attackin’ travelers, but them things are more likely to happen in open country. Not here where folks has settled.”
Many stories set in the West include a sheriff’s office in a town of any size. A Bride Opens Shop is no exception. However, the inclusion of Sheriff Hank Henderson is pure fiction. El Dorado didn’t have a sheriff. The nearest one would have been located in Placerville, which was nearly ten miles away. Law and order were well established within a few years of California’s statehood.
In the span of one generation, California had left behind her ignoble beginnings. While settled by an influx of people eager for instant wealth, a shift took place. The hardworking people who chose to stay put their energies into creating a forward-thinking state in the not-so-wild West, one that continues to make significant contributions to the U.S. and the world today.
Thanks so much for having me as your guest at Petticoats & Pistols. Spending time with you and your blog’s visitors is a pleasure.
I’d like to end with a question for all of you. When you think of California and the many things it’s known for today, which are the first to come to your mind?
One commenter who answers the question will win an autographed copy of my debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California.
The book is available for pre-order at:
BLURB for A BRIDE OPENS SHOP IN EL DORADO, CALIFORNIA
Widow Elenora Watkins looks forward to meeting her new business partner, Miles Rutledge, who owns a shop in 1870s El Dorado. But Miles is shocked to see a woman step off the stagecoach. His rude behavior forces Elenora to reconsider—so she becomes his competition across the street. Can Miles win her heart while destroying her business?